Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Required Reading -- Absurdity

Before you go any farther, you need to read an essay by Shirley Jackson.  Also, an essay by E. B. White.  Neither will be difficult to find, and you might want a copy of each to read and reread for the rest of your life.  Both are short, no more than five pages, closer to three or four pages depending on the typeface.  And both are stunning examples of fast pacing, entering a world mid-stream and leaving just as quickly. 

The Jackson essay is, “My Life with R.H. Macy.”

The E.B. White story is “Dusk in These Fierce Pajamas.”

Then, let’s look at why these pieces work so well.  Their instant authority, their specific details, plus their pacing and brevity.

In the first piece, notice how the entire story is built from specific moments and tasks.  Jackson’s authority comes from her constant flow of new details and her lack of explanation, while her humor comes from taking mundane tasks too seriously and taking serious tasks to blithely.  For example, bowing and worshipping the time clock, yet pocketing the money that a customer gives her.  The senseless slang, the abbreviations and the numbers all pummel the reader into accepting each action, leaving you with the same kind of learned helplessness the narrator develops.

In terms of pacing, notice how the essay begins with “And,” implying that something has gone before.  “And” also suggests those endless, dry lists from the Old Testament, who begat whom, and the creation of everything important, but trivialized by the Bible’s very cursory recitation of generation after generation, king after king, until it all sounds like so much blah, blah, blah.  Not to slam the Bible, but Steinbeck also knew the trick of using “and” for an Old Testament effect.  Check out how Jackson uses the Biblical tone for humor, and Steinbeck uses the tone – especially in “The Grapes of Wrath” – to sound serious and profound.  That said, never hesitate to start sentences with “and” to create instant immediacy.

What else...  notice how Jackson creates all her secondary characters as not-quite-real.  They’re all named “Miss Cooper.”  They all wear suits.  Either that, or they’re only their employee numbers or “a customer.”   No one except the narrator occurs as real, that way the reader has to accept the narrator’s version of reality.  And Jackson never has to slow the pace of her story to describe new actors:  it’s always a generic Miss Cooper or customer entering to make some demand or issue an order.

Consider that only your most, most important characters should have names.  Lesser characters should get nicknames based on their role or physical characteristics.  We seldom learn names, instead describing people as:  “the man who runs the dry cleaners, but not the crippled man, the man with bleached hair.”  Or, “those people who park too close to the corner.”  Usually, the last thing we recall about someone is their name. 

Compare all of this to Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” where everyone has a proper name, there’s an abundance of names, and the story is set on a specific date. 

In the second piece, “Dusk in These Fierce Pajamas,” by E.B. White, the narrator also overwhelms the reader with specific images and details, assembled too densely and delivered too quickly to make sense.  Like Jackson, White launches into absurdity but keeps the reader engaged by using very concrete, easily-imagined elements.  Clothing, architecture and names combine into a parody of gushing magazine copy.  Bureaucracy is Jackson’s route into absurdity.  Fashion and lifestyle magazines are White’s.

In both pieces, the narrators are “unreliable,” Jackson’s because she doesn’t understand the world, and White’s because he’s delirious with illness. 

Please, overlook the creepy touch of racism, this is the man who wrote “Charlotte’s Web.”  Again, the way to keep a secondary character comic is to depict them as an abstract – but White’s black nurse/maid is outdated, especially compared to Jackson’s effective parade of identical Miss Coopers.  What’s important is how White uses illness to gradually warp a character’s perspective until we can see how things which seem so important and sublime are built simply out of nonsense and hype.   

Recently, I watched a concert video of Billy Idol where he talked about the similarity between so many punk songs.  Idol joked that all the songs started fast, lasted for two-and-one-half minutes, then ended abruptly.  As he said that, I was shocked.  At that moment, my taste in short stories made sense to me.  My favorites, by other writers or myself, are stories that start instantly, go fast, and end within a few minutes.  “Two screens into my presentation to Microsoft, I taste blood and have to start swallowing...”  I loved punk music, and it’s clear that manic esthetic has bled into the fiction I love.

As homework, write your own version of the Jackson and White pieces.  Write one from within the framework of some complicated system, a job or bureaucracy.  Write a second piece using delusion to accelerate something very every-day until it breaks down to absurdity.  Use illness or drugs or sleep deprivation as your device, any stress that will degrade your narrator’s sanity until ordinary events assume profound weight and drama.

Remember to enter the story quickly.  Like a punk song.  Establish your authority by keeping every detail specific.  Keep your secondary characters vague -- make them serve their purpose and make their exit.  Build to the absurd, quickly, and get out fast.


About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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